For purposes of full disclosure, I live down here, my people having arrived in the Deep South around 1800 from Ireland. So I’m always a little suspicious of those not from here presuming to make a visit and then mouthing off about How Things Are.
Having said that, Paul Theroux’s latest travel memoir had me at hello.
This from the opening page: “A church in the South is the beating heart of the community, the social center, the anchor of faith, the beacon of light, the arena of music, the gathering place, offering hope, counsel, welfare, warmth, fellowship, melody, harmony, and snacks.” Truer words were never spoken.
And this, a few pages later, in describing a couple particulars of the usual fare found in cafeteria-style roadside eateries littered about the land down South: “A deep tray of okra, as viscous as frog spawn, next to a kettle of sodden collard greens looking like stewed dollar bills.” When I read that description, I surrendered, my heart in his hands. This is simply the most apt, most surprising, and most precise description I’ve ever seen of these staple food items. And this from a Massachusetts native who lives out on Cape Cod.
But I shouldn’t be surprised. Paul Theroux is the acknowledged master of travel writing, starting with the classic “The Great Railway Bazaar,’’ chronicling his journey by rail from Great Britain to Japan and back; later works record his adventures in Africa, Patagonia, China, India, and the South Pacific, to name only a few. And what has served as a hallmark of his writing is his ability to see the telling detail, the small moment, the nuanced turn of phrase and gesture that captures the whole of a people, a culture, a country.
With “Deep South,’’ Theroux turns his full attention for the first time to a place within his own country, a region he’s only visited, and whose people — and stories — have remained largely unknown to him. “Traveling in a spirit of inquiry,” he writes, “I was in the South because I had hardly been there and knew so very little about it.” Over four seasons, he treks through the poorest swath of land he can find, avoiding cities and resorts, horse farms and fine dining, those readily available destinations he calls the “Old Magnolia South” for their conjured images of mint juleps and hoop skirts. Instead, he drives back roads from North Carolina to South, on into Georgia and Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas, all in search of stories from folks “poorer in their way (as I was to find) and less able to manage and more hopeless than many people I had traveled among in distressed parts of Africa and Asia.”
Find those stories he does, from the long-suffering yet tenacious citizens of the all-but-dead South Carolina town of Allendale, a once-thriving settlement seemingly cut off from all civilization after the construction of I-95, to the flatlands of Fargo, Ark., where Theroux meets up with a band of farmers willing to talk about what it’s like to be black and struggling to make ends meet by tending the land.
“If you’re in a bind,” one of the farmers informs Theroux bluntly, “in serious default, white farmers want to buy your land. . . . They’re just waiting for you to fail. They’re on one side, bankers on the other. My bankers are all right, but I have to explain a lot to them to get them to understand my situation. There are no black loan officers. It’s not talked about, it’s not written about. There’s none.”
Most of the book is given over to tales of the inequity between black and white, the perennial subject matter of any serious assessment of life in the deep South. But what’s refreshing about this book is that blame isn’t so predictably or singularly assigned as belonging to the usual suspects: white Republican rednecks.
In fact, it is sometimes spread around in surprising directions. Too many times to mention, locals name Asians, the Chinese in particular, as among those who’ve caused them the most grief in recent years, having lured away jobs in everything from factories to catfish farms.
Perhaps the greatest scorn, though, is reserved for none other than native son Bill Clinton. The former president receives serious castigation for his defense of the late senator Robert Byrd’s Ku Klux Klan membership (“He was a country boy from the hills and hollows of West Virginia,” Clinton infamously excused Byrd in his eulogy of him. “He was trying to get elected.”). And then there is the fact that Clinton’s foundation promises millions of dollars in aid money to India and Africa, but none of it makes it home to Arkansas.
Theroux pulls no punches in his quest to understand this overlooked margin of American life, finding here, yes, a place oftentimes more Third World than First, but also finding in the land and people a dignity that surprises even himself, the seasoned world traveler. “It goes without saying,” he writes nearing the end of his quest, “that the vitality of the South lies in the self-awareness of its deeply rooted people. What made the South an enlightenment for a traveler like me, more interested in conversation than sightseeing, was the heart and soul of its family narratives — its human wealth.”
By Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 441 pps., illustrated, $29.95
Bret Lott teaches at the College of Charleston and is a former editor of The Southern Review. His most recent books are the nonfiction collection “Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian” and the novel “Dead Low Tide.”